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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Pakistani and Indian cricket fans are some of the loudest and most colourful lot, especially in front of TV cameras where they often like to scream with reckless abandon and make the most curious faces. They will tell you they are very passionate about cricket. This comes from how they proudly explain themselves as belonging to a ‘very emotional nation’ (jazbaati qaum). This is an entirely subjective claim. There is no science behind it, which proves that South Asians as a people are very emotional. Therefore, it is largely a perception. So, where did this perception originate? Most likely in Britain, which ruled India as a colony for almost 200 years.

Take for instance the famous 1924 novel A Passage to India, by British author E.M. Forster. Dr Aziz, one of the Indian characters in it, is a Muslim and portrayed as an intelligent but emotional man. Nineteeth century British authors, such as James Mill and Charles Grant, repeatedly describe Indians as being overtly religious, irrational and emotional. The celebrated author and intellectual, the late Edward Said, would have denounced this as being stereotypes invented by Europeans to make Eastern societies seem backward.

Said was the founder of ‘post-colonial studies’ — the study of the cultural legacy of colonialism and imperialism. In 1978, he wrote the hugely influential book Orientalism, in which he demonstrated how Western writers have been concocting distorted views of Eastern cultures, especially ever since the 18th century. According to Said, this ‘Orientalism’ was enacted as a depictive tool which was closely related to and informed by the West’s imperial politics and ambitions.

Edward Said’s seminal postulation has been critiqued as guilty of the same generalisations that he criticised about Western depictions of non-Western societies

Said wrote Orientalism when the US had already lost a devastating war in Vietnam and when Britain was facing a series of political, social and economic crises. The predicament in the West, further compounded by the 1973 Oil Crisis, generated an academic onslaught within Europe and the US that fervently attacked the modernist narratives of progress on which European imperialism and then the postcolonial dominance of the US were supposedly built.

Such modernism was often critiqued in the context of how the West had distorted the image of Eastern cultures to facilitate political and economic exploitation. But, ironically, almost all of these critiques emerged in the West, even though Said was a Palestinian. However, he wrote his book while he was a professor at an American university.

This idea of Orientalism generated great excitement among young ‘post-modernist’ academics. Nevertheless, when it did leave the confines of American and European academia and reached non-Western regions — mainly through Asian, African and Arab students studying in American and European universities — the idea began to be rapidly adopted by certain segments, who used it to justify violent attacks on anything they deemed ‘Western.’

The attacks were first intellectual and political in nature, in countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, Thailand, South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. Western civilisations were explained as being devoid of spirituality, morals, roots and values and only driven by sensual pleasures, profit and exploitation. This understanding of the West soon began to colour the rhetoric of Hindu nationalists, ‘Islamists’ and intransigent dictatorships. This is when some of the first poignant critiques of Said’s Orientalism emerged.

The most veracious critiques of Orientalism came from British historian Albert Hourani, British author R.G. Irwin, American scholar Nikki Keddie and, especially, the British-American historian Bernard Lewis. Lewis in 1993’s Islam and the West and Irwin in Dangerous Knowledge, argue that Said treated the West the same way he accused the West of treating the East.

They lamented that he saw the West as a monolith and in an entirely generalised manner, thus ignoring the different cultures and races which reside there. They also argued that Said cherry-picked his way to present his thesis, disregarding the fact that many Eastern cultures willingly adopt a variety of political, economic and social ideas introduced by the West. According to them, Said also ignored some strictly objective studies of Eastern societies by Western authors that had no ‘imperial agendas.’

In 2004, the philosopher Avishai Margalit and Dutch author Ian Buruma published Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. They positioned it as an antithesis of Orientalism. They wrote that Orientalism’s roots lay in the manner in which conservative and religious nationalists opposed the emergence of secularism, liberalism and capitalism during the colonial era. The Western responses were then appropriated as Orientalism by the ‘progressive’ intelligentsia in the West as a retort against modernisation.

Occidentalism decries Orientalism as a myopic and reductive attack on Western modernity. Orientalism’s academic glorification soon paved the way for it to be adopted by reactionary forces. Then there is also the case of ‘Self-Orientalism.’ This too can be seen as a critique of Orientalism because it sees cultures that have allegedly been ‘Orientalised’ or imagined by the West, becoming equal participants in the process.

Tony Mitchell in the anthology Rogue Flows and W.G. Feighery in Critical Discourse Studies write that the most befitting way to explore Self-Orientalism is to study the tourism industries in various Asian and African countries. To attract Western tourists, these countries gladly appropriate stereotypes supposedly constructed by the West. For example, In Sri Lanka and Thailand, the image of Buddhism as perceived by the West is recreated at specific tourist spots. In India, the region’s ‘legendary exotic spirituality’, revolving around gurus and pundits, has for long been moulded for a Western audience.

Self-Orientalism can also include the example of the ‘passionate’ way Pakistani and Indian cricket fans behave — a ‘passion’ constantly defined and reinforced by both South Asian and Western cricket commentators. Ultimately, Self-Orientalism actually exposes Orientalism as an idea, which eventually ends up doing what it accuses others of doing. Take for instance a 2003 interview that former chief of Jamaat-i-Islami, the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, gave to Nawa-i-Waqt. To critique Musharraf’s ‘Enlightened Moderation’, he said there was nothing wrong in behaving or looking religious because the West is more appreciative of this than by those behaving like Westerners.

This was Orientalism imposing Orien­talism but still looking towards the West for validation. This was a Self-Orientalist idea of how the West appreciates a Muslim. The Orientalist paradox.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019